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We Were Winning When He Left

Posted by on March 30, 2016

There’s a VA facility near my home and I pass by it about three times each week on the long runs I use to keep my body from stagnating as I grow older and achier. Seeing our American flag waving from a tall pole near the entrance to the veterans’ complex always puts a little bounce in my step. So I’m chugging by it last week wearing a sweat-stained PT shirt emblazoned with a replica of the Vietnam Service ribbon when a guy limping toward the entrance and leaning on a cane spots me. He smiles, waves and points to his own shirt that features a map of Vietnam and declares “we were winning when I left.” That got me thinking about the war that shaped me as it did so many of my generation now contemplating their mortality as a result of age rather than enemy action.

It’s not that I don’t think about the war in Vietnam and its effect on me without the stimulus of a t-shirt slogan. Truth be told, I think about that divisive, bloody conflict every day of my life in some way, shape, manner or form. And I’ve decided by now that every veteran who survived to return to the Land of the Big PX from service in Vietnam can truthfully say we — and that includes our often maligned allies in what was South Vietnam — were winning when he or she left Southeast Asia. By any rational reckoning, we were winning every military and diplomatic battle right up until the U.S. Congress sabotaged the effort and robbed the South Vietnamese of any chance at survival. Back in 1975, a Democrat-controlled Congress blithely disregarded promises made and blocked funding for any war material sent to the South Vietnamese as promised in the Paris Peace Accords. Your bog-standard Vietnam Veteran had nothing to do with that.

A case could be made that some Vietnam Veterans aided in that betrayal of our allies by voting for anti-war legislators or fueling anti-Vietnam sentiment when they returned from overseas — a notable example is our current Secretary of State — but for the most part Vietnam Veterans are proud of their service in that divisive conflict or at least proud of their willingness to serve their nation in uniform. Time heals all wounds, I guess. At this point, 50 years after the end of the war it’s hard to find a Vietnam Veteran truly bitter about his experiences and there is a continuous stream of veterans returning to South Vietnam to either exorcise ghosts or relive a little of their vibrant youth spent at war.

That fascinates me and makes me wonder why I still occasionally pick at emotional scabs this long after my wartime service. It’s a hard row for me to hoe. I was emotionally shattered after multiple combat tours when the war that defined me as a person and as a Marine ended in such a humiliating and ignoble fashion. For nearly a decade I stumbled through my life in a sort of daze trying to justify the sacrifices I made and observed in Southeast Asia. It’s fair to say that had I not stayed in uniform, surrounded by kindred and tolerant spirits, I might not have survived the peace that followed the war.

Of course I’m far from the only one still dealing with such frustration and consternation about service in Vietnam. There are some war-induced scars that will never heal. I found that out in vivid terms while researching the POW-MIA situation for Laos File the first book in my Shake Davis adventure series, which I’d decided to write as an effort at emotional catharsis. Fellow American and Vietnamese veterans I spoke with all seemed to express an admixture of fierce pride in their service and bitter resentment over government betrayal. By the time I had the book plotted in my mind, I felt as if I’d just done another tour in the jungles and rice paddies. And surprisingly, I found myself mentally walking a rugged click or two in the sandals of the enemy soldiers I fought against during the war in Southeast Asia. I used all that as impetus for the two main characters in my book, one an American veteran and the other a former North Vietnamese soldier who escorted U.S. POWs northward along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Both characters believed they were winning until they found out they were not.

That was then and this is now when another generation of American veterans has returned from wars in the Middle East. It’s hard not to relate our experience as Vietnam Veterans with what they may be facing if our country cuts and runs inconclusively from that theater of war where so many served, bled and sacrificed. What was it the man said….those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it?

14 Responses to We Were Winning When He Left

  1. John Marsh

    Very well put, sir. As you mentioned, we live in a nation that is suffering from long term memory loss. The lessons taught by those such as yourself have been forgotten. Our youth instead flock to the hypocritical, idiotic banter of the self serving narcissists that would conspire to award themselves medals they don’t rate and then throw them into a fountain in protest…later explaining that they only threw in their ribbons, so it is okay. Semper Fi.

  2. Mike La Bonne

    Tet ’68 appeared by some to be a devastating blow against America; however, the operation was a complete failure for the NVA/VC and they lost thousands of men in the attempt. But, that event, coupled with the belief from well-respected newsman Walter Cronkite that Tet proved we weren’t capable of winning this war, was the death knell for our effort. Everything went downhill from there.
    I served in ’69 and ’70 and am proud of my service. I believe we could have won had the politicians kept their noses out of it and let our military do the job.

  3. Bill Christofferson

    Gordon Fowler and I have been using that line for years. Will await our royalty check.

    Of course, I rotated out before Tet, so we certainly thought we were winning. I was shocked, back stateside, to read the news accounts a few months later of the battles in so many places we had marked as “pacified” on the map.

    We went back to Nam for 3 weeks in 2000. How you perceive it depends on your state of mind, but we found it to be a beautiful country of warm, gentle, patient people who welcome Americans and have no hard feelings. What they call “the American war” was just a blip in their long history. We talked with ex-VC and NVA soldiers at times, and actually shared a few laughs. We were there at the same time John McCain was visiting. If he can get over it, we all should try to do the same.

  4. Andrew Van Der Plaats

    So many sacrificed so much and in the end nothing changed, except for the number of new headstones dotting gravesites. Vietnam was a war which was promoted by big business and the politicians who they owned, just as our more recent ones in Iraq and Afghanistan were. Wen will we learn that soldiers are merely the pawns in a game of chess which neither side can win?

  5. Gregory Peter DuPont

    An essential perspective.

  6. Lem Genovese

    Bitterness, continuing to play the same lame blame game about the anti-war Nam vets, the left, the chicken hawks is not part of the healing process. Learning to understand people like Nixon, Kissinger, Congress, those who fled to Canada to avoid the draft etc has been part of my journey to healing while writing my book. Trying to respect the extreme right wing that believed we could have won that second war in Indochina or the extreme left that maintain we had no business being there in the first place leaves a lot of US Nam vets stuck in a very uncomfortable place in US history and our society.
    Like old Confederate soldiers who survived the Civil War, old slights, old grudges and hatreds that began in their formative years did not serve them well in old age. The hard and gruesome wisdom we gained from our Indochina involvement should have warned us about places like Iraq and Afghanistan. This is where selective amnesia kicks in.
    The 2nd War of Indochina should be utilized as a teaching tool for our military academies, foreign service embassy personnel and in our colleges. When only its veterans are concerned with its legacy, therein lie the seeds of repetition.

  7. Max Friedman

    I belong to a group of Vietnam veterans including at least one POW, Mike Benge, and civilians (some of us VN journalists, others diplomats or NSC VN experts) that is trying to dispel the “myth” that we “lost the war” or “could never have won it”. We didn’t lose it (we were betrayed at home) and it was being “won” in both military and civilian terms and indicators.

    Our group is Vietnam Veterans for Factual History (VVFH.org) and every year we publish a “Yellow Yearbook” on the war, starting from 1963 through 1975, plus articles, columns, and brochures.

    I can assure you that you will find information in there NOT taught in high schools and colleges (some of our members are honorable college professors and award winning writers). We provide a good basic bibliography by subject/topic, listing many books you will not find in the works of Karnow, Isaacs, Sheehan, Prados, Spector, Young, and Hanoi’s favorite propagandist, Gary Porter.

    The experiences of our members spans the whole of the war, and one of our supporters, famed writer/journalist Sol Sanders, has been covering Asia since 1948. His contacts with real people and events are now found in his autobiography, and reveal things you’d never seen in the mainstream writers’ output. Also, he knows more than most of them all put together.

    I’m writing this because there is a raging war for “the history of the Vietnam/Indochina War”s..The leftist Marxists and their rosy-lensed liberal allies have seized the field of history and column writing for too long.

    Now there is a new “factual history” organization, VVFH, telling the story of what really happened because they were there, many made high-level in-country policies, fought in some of the biggest battles of the war, endured communist imprisonment and torture, and often spoke the native languages fluently.

    Others served in the highest positions in the National Security Council and saw the really classified stuff that most journalists never even knew existed. Just the “Confidential” interview summaries from captured and defector VC and No. Vietnamese gave me an insight into the enemy I never really had from the press, and when I interviewed them in person, I learned that we were winning on a scale I could never imagine.

    As Moulder used to say in the X-Files tv series, “The Truth Is Out There” and we bunch of stubborn, experienced and education men and women are determined to not only find the truth, but to bring it to the public as long as we are alive.

    If nothing else, we owe it to those who didn’t come back because they did not die in vain. The fought for the freedom of others as best they were allowed, and did a damned great job of defeating the communist enemies.

    We apologize for nothing. We stand for by our actions and our research.

    Come on over to VVFH.org and see for yourself.

    Max Friedman, Bao Chi, Fall 1970 SVN and Cambodia

  8. Mark Jeffery

    I do not doubt the veracity and integrity of what is expressed by the author. But, looking at the bigger picture: I am wondering how Vietnam or the USA or the rest of the world would be different today if South Vietnam had prevailed in that war. It appears that the threat of communism was greatly over stated. So, What was really at stake in Vietnam?

    • Carl

      What was at stake Mark was a sovereign state that was being overrun against the wishes of its people, by the paradise of communism. What was at stake were all the right arms that had been chopped off by VC in villes where people had accepted USAID vacinations. What was at stake was the biggest war crime in the war when VC tax collectors were spurned and retuned the following night and burnt all 3,000 inhabitants to death. What was at stake were the 4,000 inhabitants who were murdered durning the short occupation of Hue by the NVA in 1968.

  9. Paul Schmehl

    Mark, if SVN had won the war, Vietnam would be much like Korea. The North suffering miserably and the South prospering. Instead Vietnam is almost last on the list of world human rights violators. More people died after the war ended in 1975 than in the entire 20 years of the war (of which the US only had combat troops in theatre for 8 – ’65 to ’72.)

    Had America not intervened (at the request of the SVN government), communism might have taken over all of SEA. There were communist “insurgencies” in Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia, all of which would have succeeded had the North Vietnamese and Chinese communists not had to devote so much of their resources to South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia due to the American presence and assistance.

    That’s not my opinion only. Lee Kuan Yew, the man who established Singapore and led it to prosperity said so in his book. http://blog.vvfh.org/2015/04/the-domino-theory/.

  10. Eric M. Scallion

    Great topic. I served in the ‘Corps during the Desert Shield/Desert Storm period, and I share similar frustrations and concerns. We’re hemorrhaging institutional memory and as a result history is repeating itself in what seem like ever-tightening loops. I believe such navel-gazing as you have done, combined with good doses of intellectual honesty and historical education about where we have come from are essential in getting us to where we need to be in the future.

    In his Hardcore History “Wrath of the Khans” series opener, Dan Carlin discussed how the carnage wrought by the Khans in China also brought about benefits to future civilization in the form of international trade routes. He discussed how, if we could ask those Chinese who suffered at the time if it was “worth it” they might argue the price of progress.

    My conclusion is this: we as former warriors, and myself as a father can do our part to ensure that our descendants and those in out immediate orbit get the scoop from us. Manage in small ways and keep pushing outward. If enough of us engage and stay engaged, we can educate, remind, influence, encourage, and lead others to maintain that momentum.

  11. Phillip J. Buettner, Jr.

    Capt. Dye

    Every Time You Star In A Movie I Make It A Priority To Watch It
    You Play A Great Role A Role As A Colonel Would Love To See You Play A General
    You Deserve A Promotion ! ! !

    Keep Up The Great Work / THANK YOU FOR YOU SERVICE TO THIS GREAT NATION

  12. Rick Martin

    DALE, Had many good times with you and others at the Press Center 6/69-3/70. Semper Fi

    Rick Martin

  13. Mike Anderson

    The sad truth of the matter is that the fate of Vietnam was sealed on the first day of November of 1963. For it was on this day that died this land’s only true patriot, a man who was as much opposed to Communism as was opposed to any large Western armies entering into his country. The man of whom I speak was Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem. And it must also be said that the man who wrecked all was none other than a raw rookie American President named John Kennedy, who ignorantly thought that Diem could be overthrown without blood, and who reckoned that the unseating of Diem would somehow make things in Vietnam better. Yet when the Communist dictator of the North, Ho Chi Minh, heard of Diem’s death, he said “I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid. Diem was one of the most competent lackeys of the imperialists.” And in fact, the New York Times was to report exactly one year later “Vietnam outlook bleaker a year after Diem’s fall”.
    American and allied SEATO armies could fight in Vietnam, but could not possibly stay forever.
    And once they left, Vietnam was ripe for a Communist takeover.

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